Up-to-the-minute science meets the philosophy of identity in a poignant, engaging debut book.



A fascinating account of consumer genetic testing’s “fundamental reshaping of the American family” over the past two decades.

Swabbing your cheek and sending off for personal DNA results is increasingly common, for the curious as well as for family historians and those in the dark about their parentage. In her impeccably researched debut, journalist Copeland traces the development of “genetic genealogy,” a field created by citizen scientists. Whereas 1970s genealogists relied on microfilm archives and in-person interviews with relatives, their yearslong searches only shortened by lucky discoveries, today’s genetic “seekers” can get answers within days. In 2000, FamilyTreeDNA became the first company to offer at-home DNA testing, followed by Ancestry.com and 23andMe. The author chronicles her meeting with the founder of FamilyTreeDNA, her visit to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and her correspondence with 400 DNA testers. Many received shocking results but agree it’s better to know the truth, even about abandonment, rape, or incest. Copeland highlights a few representative cases—e.g., a father who had a second family and a woman who didn’t learn she was adopted until age 51. Foundlings and children of sperm donors often meet (half-)siblings they never knew existed. But the anchoring storyline is that of Alice Collins Plebuch, who was surprised when her saliva sample indicated that she was half Eastern European Jewish instead of 100% British/Irish. Copeland presents her quest for her late father’s true heritage as a riveting mystery with as many false leads as any crime novel. Along the way, the author thoughtfully probes the ethical dangers of genetic testing, including conflicting privacy rights, an essentialist view of race, unexpected medical results, and DNA databases being used in crime-solving. As she notes, it’s a fast-moving field in need of regulation, and she engrossingly examines the many questions that arise, both practical and rhetorical: “What makes us who we are? Blood? Family? Culture?”

Up-to-the-minute science meets the philosophy of identity in a poignant, engaging debut book.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4197-4300-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Abrams

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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A quirky wonder of a book.



A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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